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Ursula von der Leyen: Who is the first woman president of the EU commission?

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Ursula von der Leyen: Who is the first woman president of the EU commission? 3

Ursula von der Leyen was never the name on everyone’s lips: The 60-year-old defence minister, who was relatively unknown outside of Germany until two weeks ago, was narrowly approved by MEPs on Tuesday. 

She didn’t stand in the elections and her name was never really mentioned as a candidate – but that didn’t stop MEPs approving her. They had tried to inject some democracy into the selection process, but backed down after leaders threatened a fight.

In the end the vote was closer than many expected: despite winning support from most of the mainstream political groups in the parliament, she scraped through by just nine votes. Such is the effect of a secret ballot.

Getting the job is something of a homecoming for the Christian democratic politician, who was actually raised in Brussels as a native French and German speaker. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was a top EU civil servant in the Sixties.

A compromise candidate, she was suggested by EU leaders after days of talks – apparently by the Visegrad group of central and eastern European countries.

Since her nomination she had done everything she can to shake the vote of confidence of far-right Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban – which many worried would count against her with other more liberal-minded Europeans. She has talked up beefing up rule of law provisions, and emphasised the social liberal and environmental side of her politics.

Von der Leyen is no stranger to scandal: she’s currently undergoing a parliamentary inquiry over claims of nepotism and incompetence at the Ministry of Defence. She’s also been accused of plagiarising some of her doctoral thesis, and making errors in it. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on the Bundestag to see whether anything come out of the parliamentary inquiry. 

On Brexit – which is fairly low down the agenda in Brussels at the moment – Von der Leyen will be more of the same (as any realistic pick for the top job would be). She’s said Brexit is a “loss for everyone” and said events since the referendum had the “burst bubble of hollow promises” woven by Vote Leave. She’s said she’s open an an extension, but the decisions won’t be hers and she won’t be in office until November anyway, when it’s been decided.

Von der Leyen is, above all, a close ally of Angela Merkel – a moderate who is the only minister to have served in all her governments continuously since 2005. Before taking over the defence portfolio she was labour and social affairs minister, and before that, families minister. In those roles she supported quotas for women on company boards and beefed up parental leave for fathers. She stood by Merkel during the refugee crisis.

As defence minister, she promoted arms exports to Saudi Arabia, and on foreign policy is, by German standards at least, a hawk. At the EU, she is a strong federalist, and has called for “a united states of Europe – run along the lines of the federal states of Switzerland, Germany or the USA”. She says an EU army is also an aspiration. 

Her policy platform, which was previously fairly opaque on account of her not being a candidate in the elections, has now been fleshed out. It looks fairly ambitious: abolishing the member state veto on foreign policy, EU-wide coordination of minimum wages, and a major investment programme to cut carbon emissions. But the EU is such that it’s hard to tell how much of this she will be able to deliver.

She is, of course, the first women to hold the post of European Commission president – and actually only the second German. Now, her job is to build her top team, which she says she wants to be half men and half women. Her first fight will be convincing member states – many of whom already have particular men in mind for the post – that that’s worth it. 

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Corporate sponsorship of EU presidency to continue despite outcry

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Corporate sponsorship of EU presidency to continue despite outcry 6

The controversial practice of picking corporate sponsors for the European Union’s rotating presidency is to continue, despite an outcry from MEPs.

EU countries have been raising eyebrows by doing deals with increasingly controversial multinational corporations during their stints overseeing debates at the EU council

Romania’s presidency in the first half of 2019 was sponsored by Coca-Cola, with the US drinks giant’s logo plastered over banners and signs at meetings. One council summit in Bucharest featured Coca-Cola branded bean bag chairs, and a fridge of free drinks plastered with statistics about the company’s contribution to the economy.

Other sponsors of the council presidency have included car manufacturers, software companies and other firms with vested interests in influencing EU policy.

But hopes that the incoming Finnish presidency, which took the helm this summer, might end the practice, were dashed after it picked German car manufacturer BMW as a sponsor – despite the firm being hit with a fine over its cars’ diesel emissions earlier this year.

“We do not foresee any discussions of corporate sponsorship of EU presidencies with other member states,” a spokesperson for the Finnish presidency told the EUobserver website.

The Finnish presidency has confirmed that BMW will be providing free cars for use by the presidency to transport members of delegations.

Around 100 MEPs wrote to the Finnish government in April calling for a ban on the practice, describing it as “politically damaging”.

“The sponsorship of the current and previous presidencies by automotive, software and beverage companies, many of whom have an active interest in influencing EU decision-making, is politically damaging,” the letter, signed by 97 representatives read.

Coca-Cola sponsors Romania’s European council presidency (romania2019.eu)

Vicky Cann, lobbying researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory told The Independent: “Corporate sponsorship of a member state’s EU Council Presidency has become standard, but it is pretty obvious that this should be a no-go.

“Some of the corporations involved, like car company BMW sponsoring the current Finnish Presidency, spend millions on lobbying the EU and have a clear agenda to influence EU decision-making. The risk is that these sponsorship deals help to grease the wheels of the Brussels lobbying machine by trying to boost the image of these brands in the eyes of EU policy-makers.

“In the case of BMW, this is taking place only a few months after the EU Commission charged the company and several other car makers with collusion to limit the development and roll-out of emission cleaning technology. Decision-makers should be keeping their distance from the car industry, not accepting its favours. But so far, there seems to be no regulation, let alone prohibition, of such corporate sponsorship deals.”

The presidency of the EU council rotates between member states every six months. The country that holds the presidency chairs meetings of the EU council, which scrutinises EU legislation, and sets agendas and a programme of work for its six months.

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Ursula von der Leyen elected as next EU Commission president replacing Jean-Claude Juncker

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Ursula von der Leyen elected as next EU Commission president replacing Jean-Claude Juncker 8

Ursula von der Leyen elected as next EU Commission president replacing Jean-Claude Juncker 9

The European parliament has narrowly approved Ursula von der Leyen as the next president of the European Commission, replacing Jean-Claude Juncker at the helm of the EU’s executive.

The German defence minister was approved by 383 votes to 327, with 22 abstentions and one blank vote on Tuesday evening. She needed 374 votes to reach the threshold to be elected, meaning she scraped through by just nine votes.

Ms Von der Leyen, who was nominated by EU leaders earlier this month, is the first woman to hold the top job in Brussels. The European Commission is the union’s executive arm and is responsible for proposing EU law, enforcing its treaties, and representing the interests of the bloc as a whole on the world stage. 

She is due to take office on 1 November after a handover period during which her cabinet of commissioners, one from each member state, will be chosen and their portfolios allocated. She has pledged to achieve gender balance in the top team – but could face a showdown with member state governments, who may have other candidates in mind as their commissioners.

The German politician’s appointment is controversial because she was not a lead candidate in the EU elections last month. The European parliament had previously said that the next commission president should have been on the ballot paper during the contest and campaigned across the EU, under the so-called “spitzenkandidat” system.

But a majority of MEPs gave Ms Von der Leyen their backing anyway after national leaders called their bluff and proposed a candidate who was not available to vote for. She was opposed by MEPs from the green and left groups in the parliament, but supported by the centre-right and the liberals. The centre-left socialist group was split, with some countries’ parties such as the German SPD opposing the appointment and others such as Labour supporting it.

“The trust you placed in me is the confidence you placed in Europe,” she told MEPs in her acceptance speech. 

“Your confidence in a united and a strong Europe, from east to west, from south to north. Your confidence in a Europe that is ready to fight for the future rather than fighting against each other. Your confidence in a Europe that will take the big challenges of our times together. The task ahead of us humbles me: it is a big responsibility and our work starts now.”

In her address to MEPs on Tuesday morning ahead of the vote, the nominee proposed a number of reforms, including scrapping the member state veto on EU foreign policy to speed up decision-making during international crises. She also pledged to bring in a “green deal” investment programme for the continent in her first 100 days in office and to ramp up environmental targets and write them into law. She also said that she supports tougher action against member states that breach the rule of law.

A close ally of Angela Merkel, Ms Von der Leyen is only the second German to ever hold the commission presidency. During her last job as defence minister in the German federal government she was unpopular with the public and her department was placed under parliamentary investigation for alleged nepotism mismanagement.

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